Education spending in Kansas: Both sides ‘are telling the truth’

08/25/2014 6:56 PM

08/25/2014 7:43 PM

Gov. Sam Brownback pushed back Monday against criticism that he has underfunded education or targeted teachers during his first term as he unveiled his education platform at events in Topeka and Merriam.

The governor sought to dispel a commonly repeated criticism that he has cut education funding. “We’ve got record amounts of money going into the K-12 classroom,” Brownback told a small crowd in Topeka.

His Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, told a crowd in Wichita the opposite on Saturday.

“Everywhere I have traveled, I’ve met Kansans troubled by the governor’s cuts to our schools,” Davis said during a speech at his party’s summer convention.

The two candidates use different numbers when talking about education funding.

Davis refers to base state aid per pupil, which peaked at $4,400 in 2009 and is at $3,852 this school year.

Brownback prefers to look at total education spending, which will surpass $6 billion this year and was about $5.6 billion before he took office. This number includes federal aid, state contributions to the state pension fund, which have increased under Brownback, and all other expenses ranging from cafeteria food to transportation costs.

His remarks on Monday appeared to refer to classroom spending specifically.

His campaign spokesman, John Milburn, said that it’s up to school districts to determine how to spend state aid they receive, with the exception of pension funding.

“I’m saying total numbers, total dollars have gone up. And that’s true,” the governor said when asked to clarify his remarks. “Now, I sure think we can get more money into the classroom. You may recall two years ago, we did a big commission on trying to get more money into the classroom. A lot of school districts pushed back on that.”

Mark Tallman, associate executive director for the Kansas Association of School Boards, performed an analysis that showed that, if adjusted for inflation, total education spending has been flat since Brownback took office.

“It’s absolutely correct to say that overall spending is up,” Tallman said. “In terms of total dollars, that’s correct. Why districts, though, are still feeling the pinch is because none of that is what allows you to pay salaries or hire teachers or add programs for kids or deal with operating costs.”

Tallman also noted that the increased contributions to the pension fund have driven the total dollar increase.

“That’s why I think both sides, if you want to put it that way, are telling the truth. If your argument is we’re spending more money than ever, that’s true. If your argument is we’re not spending more money, we’re really spending less money on current daily operations, that’s also true,” Tallman said.

Teachers union backs Davis

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, rejected the governor’s contention that record amounts of money are going into classrooms.

“Don’t say you’ve raised money for the classroom when you have not. He has simply renamed things,” Desetti said in a phone call.

The KNEA, the state’s largest teachers union, has criticized Brownback heavily and is backing Davis. KNEA members packed the Democratic rally in Wichita on Saturday.

One target of criticism is House Bill 2506, which the governor signed in April. The bill addressed a Supreme Court order for more equitable funding among school districts, adding about $130 million in new money for districts and property tax relief.

“I’ve been putting money in education. My opponent’s been voting against putting money in education,” Brownback said Monday. “That’s wrong.”

Davis, the House minority leader, opposed the bill – as did the rest of the Democratic caucus and some Republicans – because it tied the funding to several controversial policy reforms, including elimination of state-mandated hearings before a public school teacher can be fired.

“I love education. I love teachers. Teachers are transformers. They transform lives,” Brownback said.

“Why wouldn’t he support teachers?” Milburn said when asked whether the governor’s remarks were meant to address the union’s criticism. “A better question for KNEA is: What specifically bothers them?”

Desetti said the governor has avoided teachers when they have shown up to protest on the campaign trail. “He ought to talk to a teacher once in a while.”

“He likes teachers that will shut up and stay out of his way,” Desetti said. “If he wants to honor teachers, then he needs to give teachers a voice. By taking away their due process, he stripped them of any voice of advocacy in their school district.”

Brownback said the new law has increased local control by leaving the policy decision about due process up to local school boards.

Technical education

Brownback also touted the state’s technical education program during the Topeka event, which was held at Victor L. Phillips Co., a seller of construction equipment.

Standing with bulldozer behind him, the governor said that enrollment in technical education has increased by more than 200 percent across the state in the past four years. He noted that the Wichita school district has seen the number of students participating balloon from 60 to 1,600.

“How many of those 1,600 would have dropped out of school?” Brownback said. “And how many of those are we keeping in the system where they can achieve something?”

The governor set a goal that 85 percent of Kansas high school students will graduate with either a technical certification, acceptance into college without the need for remediation classes or a commitment to join the military.

He also set a goal for 60 percent of Kansas adults to have earned a college degree or technical certification.

The governor said technical certifications give young people a chance to land jobs straight out of high school that pay more than the minimum wage, offering some Kansans a path out of poverty.

“The answer isn’t a little bit of money from the federal government to get somebody out of poverty. The answer is education, a job and a strong family,” Brownback said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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